The Youth Center is the place and moreover the Youth Center are the people who fill it with life and give sense to all the activities there. It all starts 10 years ago, when the good cooperation between the Ministry of Education and Youth and the Council of Europe gave birth to an idea, supported by Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein. This resulted in a call for projects leading to the selection of four municipalities were selected - Vratsa, Dobrich, Plovdiv and Stara Zagora. In the next few years, while serious construction works were at place, the team in each center was formed. The core consists of a manager, a youth worker and an educational mediator. Additional expertise is used through the support of psychologists and other specialists. Municipalities provide valuable support as well.
We are meeting Vesela, Monica and Boyana from the center in Stara Zagora. Vesela and Monica are part of the team from the start back in 2014. "We started after a job opening for youth workers and Roma mediators. Working at the youth center definitely takes you beyond the regular working relations as we spend a lot of time together. What's more - the work is very dynamic and we are living in a constant teambuilding," says Vesela. Boyana joins two years ago and brings to the team a serious background of educational activities - "I had the comfort to work with young people, while still having that insecure buzz that makes you ask yourself - where am I standing and what can I improve in my work?"
What does a youth center do and why is it important?
Vesela: The opening of the complete building was at least a year and a half after we had already begun working with young people and organising initiatives. The youth center this is not the building, but rather the people who make the activities happen. The final beneficiary comes for the people, not so much for the building, because the people are those who sort of recruit him and manage to keep him.
Monica: The idea behind the youth center is the possibility to work on many levels - local, national, international, working with young people, but also with parents.
What changed with time and when did you see a form of acceptance of the youth center as a strong local factor?
Vesela: Recognition by the Municipality was a question of time and nowadays we have the necessary freedom and trust, as well as an understanding about the importance of our activities for the young people of Stara Zagora. We are happy to be able to put all the resources of the municipality to our needs and endeavors.
Probably this is the right time to mention that in 2017 the Youth Center of Stara Zagora was awarded with the Council of Europe Quality Label Certificate - an international recognition for all the efforts. 15 criteria are to be fulfilled in order to get such an honor. Therefore, only 14 youth centers across Europe have been awarded so far and we are happy to say that 2 of them are in Bulgaria - in Stara Zagora and Plovdiv. The monitoring process for extension of the quality label is repeated every 3 years in order to guarantee the sustainability of the centers.
One of the main tasks of a youth center is to support young people from vulnerable groups. In this regard, the center is a secure place where young people have freedom of expression, the opportunity to be themselves and to become part of creative and educational initiatives.
Monica: I feel proud that young people living in the Roma district of the town are aware and have the freedom to come here and ask for events and activities. This helps us establish a relationship and develop a recognition and visibility among vulnerable groups which I find very important.
Vesela: One day you are at the Roma district talking to parents who don't allow their children to go to school and on the next day you are attending a conference of the Council of Europe. You as a member of the team at the youth center face the challenge to fit and be active on both locations which is a significant challenge. In the end you get the invaluable professional experience and ability to become a mediator between the needs of young people and transfer them to the people spending most of their day behind desks.
The year 2020 was very important for the youth centers for at least two reasons: At first place, 4 new centers are in the process of development (construction, refurbishment and team development) in the cities of Pernik, Gabrovo, Burgas and Montana. At the same time, the other 4 so called "old" centers are building up on their previous achievements and expanding activities towards smaller surrounding municipalities. The aim is to activate and encourage local activists and to light the flame.
Vesela: The aim is to provide a place for activities that young people find attractive. So far, we lack a large hall to host big events. The reconstruction has already started and we expect to have it finalized by the end of the year. At the same time, we are working in small neighboring municipalities where young people can be the active force to launch initiatives, that are supported by the center. In the new project we focus more on supporting initiatives coming from the young people. In this regard, we face certain barrier, at least in the beginning. But once a certain threshold is passed, the process continues smoothly and the pass-on effect is visible and very positive.
Of course, we do our best to support the new youth centers with our lessons learnt, our mistakes and help them on the way. We are not in a competition in any way and our goal is the same.
How does the quarantine caused by the Corona Virus affect the work of the youth center? Is a virtual youth center even possible?
Vesela: We were definitely not prepared – one day you are at work and on the next day everything is online. Engaging young people and keeping them involved when they have already spent half a day in front of the screen at school is very difficult. On the other hand, young people need to spend time together and often use our more informal network as an opportunity to socialize.
Boyana: It was a shift from physical to online that happened quite a few times and we had a certain level of insecurity in terms of planning activities and facing the next wave of Corona.
Monica: Young people need to socialize. There is a certain feeling of a hunger for social activities in order to compensate for what has taken over for already two years now.
If the words of your girls inspired you in some way, the youth centers are always happy to find new friends. You can follow them for more inspiration on Facebook and might even turn to be one of their future volunteers.
Stara Zagora, Vratsa, Plovdiv, Dobrich, Burgas, Gabrovo, Montana, Pernik